TED Fellows

What We Can Learn from the Bonobo


Editor's Note: The annual TED Conference (Feb. 26-Mar. 4) is an invitation-only affair known as the place where high-tech tycoons, Nobel laureates, and other very smart people gather to share ideas that will inspire. The TED Fellows program was established to give people who wouldn't ordinarily have the opportunity—or the means—a chance to present their remarkable work to an audience that just might include Bill Gates and Al Gore. In a series leading up to TED, Businessweek.com will feature interviews conducted via e-mail with a handful of this year's fellows.

Isabel Behncke Izquierdo
Primatologist
Oxford University

Isabel Behncke Izquierdo is a Chilean primatologist who studies the bonobos in a remote jungle region in the Democratic Republic of the Congo. Very little is known about the bonobo, which along with the chimpanzee is the closest living evolutionary relative to humans. Behncke Izquierdo, 34, who studied animal behavior and evolutionary anthropology at Cambridge and Oxford, hopes that a better understanding of the bonobo will provide new insights into human evolution and a better understanding of how we come to experience such things as joy, creativity, and our capacity for wonder.

What can humans learn from the bonobo?
Much! Three main aspects: playfulness, social tolerance, and female bonding.

We have an extraordinary opportunity to learn from bonobos, more about our own evolutionary past on one hand, and on the other the incredible diversity of social organization in animals. Bonobos are our evolutionary cousins, that is, we share a common ancestor with them who lived approximately 6 million years ago. Since all the modern human ancestors are extinct, bonobos and chimpanzees are our living closest relatives, the best window we have into our past.

Most of the narratives around human evolution have been informed by what we know from chimpanzees, not from bonobos—since we know relatively little about them and most studies come from captivity, not from the wild. Chimpanzees are well-known for being toolmakers, hunters, patriarchal, aggressive, political, and strongly hierarchical. Bonobos on the other hand are female-dominated, much more socially tolerant, with lessened and more flexible hierarchies, playful throughout their lives, peaceful both within and between groups.

It then follows that if we were to learn only from chimpanzees, our ideas of our past would be heavily skewed; we would be missing essential and wonderful aspects of what makes us human.

Are bonobos the swingers of the chimpanzee world? Are they as sexually liberated as the literature suggests?
Short answer is yes—bonobos are highly sexual creatures. Their use of sex is multidimensional: It is seen in contexts as varied as highly tense situations around food competition, bonding, play, and so on. A primatologist once said that "chimpanzees resolve sexual issues with power; bonobos resolve power issues with sex."

In addition to variety in context, partner combination is also incredibly varied: There is adult male/adult female sex, of course, but in addition there is female-female, male-male, and also adult-infant sex. Much of adult-adult sex happens in stress-related situations (such as just before and during feeding), and a lot of infant sex seems to have elements of playful exploration (such as a game of chase in which a young female held a male literally by the balls as he laughed). But these are generalizations—bonobos' sexual behavior always surprises.

If you could take a few bonobo behaviors and somehow make them part of human nature, what would they be?
What a fun thought experiment. I would have to choose grooming, inter-group tolerance, and sex. Aspects of these of course, since we already do them, yet not in the same way as bonobos do. First, grooming because those long sessions of tactile social contact must feel wonderful—the only simile for us these days is paying for massage! Second, female bonding, and social tolerance in general: Formation of strong alliances between females seems to make for a more peaceful, tolerant, and less strongly hierarchical society. Last but not the very least, to bring in at least part of the sexual exuberance that bonobos have would certainly keep humans both very fit and happy! Just kidding, I don't want to think about the complications that would cause!

How do you observe bonobos? Do you live with them? Do they come to know you or recognize you?
I study a group of wild bonobos that have been habituated to human observation by Japanese scientists and local Congolese trackers since the mid-'70s. The research station is a house made of mud and bricks in the village of Wamba (at the very heart of the Congo basin), which lies at the center of the study group's range. I get up at 3:30 a.m. and walk through the jungle with the trackers to get to the bonobos' sleeping site before they get up and start traveling (usually around 6 a.m.). We then follow them thorough their daily activities. They travel and split in smaller parties, looking for food. Usually at mid-morning, there will be a long "social session," where the adults groom and the juveniles play. When they make their nests (beds) again in the evening, I record the place in my GPS and we then walk back to camp, shower, eat, and prepare for the next day of bonobo observations.

I think they do know me and recognize my voice and face, since for example when they hear the voices of villagers foraging in the forest they get startled in a way that does not happen with my voice (and those of the people they know). Bonobos are highly intelligent and curious animals, and there are a few bold individuals that have come to observe me at closer quarters sometimes.

Did your parents encourage you to have lots of pets? Is that what sparked your interest in becoming a primatologist?
Having lots of pets is an understatement. My dad had anything from eagles-in-rehabilitation roaming inside the house to a South American rhea running outside. So no lack of animal diversity there! Also, I was very lucky that we spent the long summer holidays at a sheep ranch where horses, dogs, and the local wildlife made for all the fun a child could possibly want. But exposure to animals is not all that made me a primatologist, since the multitude of books my mom encouraged me to read left an intellectual curiosity which has been a key driver all the way.

Did you really have a pet parrot as a child that you used to sneak on airplanes?
I was 8 years old when I was given this untamed, angry parrot by my father. I had the whole summer and total determination, so I succeeded in befriending him so that nothing would separate us for the following 15 years. During my late teens and early 20s I was frequently flying within Chile, and so to get onto planes I would regularly hide my parrot inside my sweater. To be honest, I think stewardesses knew about it but turned a blind eye. The proof came once when there was a disabled girl who had a panic attack, and since nothing seemed to calm her, they came to get me to see whether showing her the parrot would work. My little parrot did a great laughter impression and so it worked. We were then invited to visit the captain's cockpit, but the adventure finished not quite on a high since the parrot decided to poo all over the flying instruments. Unforgettable.


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